You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients. – Julia Child
Lately I’ve been cooking up a storm. There was a brief period of time when I was working out of an office, that I swear to you, I could not get it together in terms of food. I am sure there are a million tips and tricks people would have offered me, and eventually I would have figured something out. But I had worked from home for the last seven years. I didn’t know how to manage taking my kids to school then commuting for an hour in traffic to work, or picking the kids up from two different locations then making it home after 6:30, only to have two hungry kids and a hungry husband starting back at me. I think I worked a total of three months in an office, full-time, and I don’t know how many meals I was able to actually cook, maybe three. Honestly. What should have been the best part of my day, being able to be back with my family, eating and talking and laughing – was, instead, a stressful mess.
I decided to be easy on myself. So I bought a lot of “healthy convenience food.” It might be a ricotta stuffed chicken breast that still takes 45 minutes to cook, but at least I can call my husband from the cell phone and tell him to pop it in, so it’s ready when we the kids and I get home. That kind of convenience is expensive, it turns out.
I spent my entire first full day of not working, cooking everything I could get my hands on. I made the kids whole grain pancakes stuffed with Serendipity Pear and Rosemary Compote (so freaking good it hurts, that compote is!) for breakfast. I made a giant salad for lunch, topped with goat cheese, sliced apples, and pecans I candied with honey. For dinner – a butternut squash lasagna. I had everything I needed in my kitchen. I didn’t have to run out to the store. It turns out that home cooking can be a lot less expensive than we’ve been told. I haven’t stopped cooking, since, both for the cost-savings aspect, as well as the sheer joy of it. I missed cooking.
All of this got me to thinking about the supposed inconvenience and the expense of cooking real food. Here’s the food story that many people experience in our society, one that’s increasingly been fed to us (hahaha) via marketing probably since the 1960′s: Life is expensive, and the way you achieve the American Dream is to for both of you to get out there in the work force and work your little tails off so that you may reap the rewards. As a result, we become too busy to cook. Enter snacks and pre-made meals and such. “Look!” they say. “We are here to help you. You need us. We make your very busy life easier. We’ll make cereal. Just add milk. Here are some lunchables. The whole lunch? Already wrapped up and ready to go! We’ve got macaroni and cheese and frozen pizzas. Your kids will enjoy them. They’re quick to make and you won’t have to argue about dinner at the end of a long, exhausting day. You want healthy? We’ve pre-cut your broccoli into little florettes and sealed them up so they’re ready when you are! You shouldn’t have to cut. You make, what, $45 an hour? $50 maybe? Is cutting broccoli a valuable use of your time? No, it is not. We will take care of that for you. You just enjoy.”
If you think about how that trend evolved over the last 5 decades, it’s amazing how much has changed. Life became more expensive to catch up with the fact that more money was able to be spent, causing costs to rise. We consolidated from many food businesses to probably 2-3 large companies that control the greatest amount of our food supply. We’re more sedentary, we eat more empty calories, and the list goes on. Suddenly, what used to be considered “practical, normal and healthy” (cooking our food from scratch, drinking raw milk, baking our own bread, growing and canning our food) has become kitschy. Though wonderfully all of this is catching on, now. Yeah!
In the meantime, real food has grown a reputation for being both too expensive and too inconvenient. That is true in a sense. There are a myriad of reasons for the expense including the ineffectiveness (from a health persepctive) of the farm bill and the economies of scale benefit that large food businesses experience, but there are equally good ways to keep the cost of “real food” down: shop at farmer’s markets, buy large quantities of a desired product with a group of friends, get a few people to go in on a grass-fed cow, limit what you eat, make food from scratch, shop locally and let the law of supply and demand do its thing. I really could go on. The point is: oftentimes the storyline determines the outcome. And we were sold a storyline that told us we all needed to work our asses off for the American Dream. The fact that real food became unattainable for a great portion of our society, was the outcome.
When both parents are forced to work because it’s the only way to afford “life” we’ve created a problem. Because the whole point of the women’s movement wasn’t that we all wanted to work – we just wanted to be treated equally. We wanted choice. Perhaps because I was born in Silicon Valley, I never thought there was a choice. Life is indeed expensive. But suddenly I am seeing that choice is all around me. I simply got swept up in doing what I thought I should do. Spend.
Simplifying your life can go a long way towards stretching a dollar. Pre-packaged food does cost a lot of money. Take a pizza, for example. Everyone pretty much has the ingredients to make pizza dough. A lot of people grow tomatoes. Many people even make and freeze or can their own sauce. If not, how many people don’t have tomato sauce in their pantries? Add cheese (usually something people have – and really – not as hard to make as you would think!) and whatever toppings. Voila!
So, yes, coming home and throwing a frozen pizza in the oven is easier. But making the pizza is more fun. And we both probably have everything right there, anyway. And if we started planning and making sure we had the right ingredients in our homes, we could even get to a place where we have the ingredients to make our own mozzarella (heck! You could have a goat in your backyard and make that mozzarella from goat’s milk! But read this first before you get too excited; I’ve decided against the goat), grow our own tomatoes, we’ve got our staples all there to make our pizza pie dough. We could even have a few pots of lettuce and herbs growing in the kitchen! Now we’ve got ourselves a lovely little homegrown salad and a homemade tomato, basil and mozzarella pizza. And let’s throw in a glass of chianti – because.
I’m feeling the joy of cooking, again, because I’m no longer rushing the process. What I’ve realized in the meantime is that eating well can be inexpensive as long as you have a good amount of basic staples, grow a little bit of your food, and give yourself a little time. I’ve noticed that I’m spending far less money on food because I am cooking from scratch. And I’m enjoying that time with myself, time being creative through cooking and canning, and being able to day dream again, because I have the time for such luxuries. I’m sure that will change at some point. But for now, I’m enjoying cooking up whatever comes to mind.